Argo takes us back to the 4th November 1979 and the Iran hostage crisis. And just like the political thriller Day of the Jackal before it, Argo manages to pull off the nigh impossible – that tricky paradox of being able to create suspense in a story whose ending we already know. It’s a difficult trick to manage but the film does it adroitly from the moment the embassy is attacked and overrun by a baying mob to the hostages’ final escape from Iran. The tense nature of the storming of the embassy is helped in no small measure by the clever intermingling of real footage from the time with the actual film; and in the process encouraging you to believe that everything you see is what actually happened rather than a well-scripted, well-acted story ‘based on fact’.
From the start Argo manages to deftly fit in an incredible amount of background information into the film without slowing down the pace. Aware that most people’s knowledge of Iran (unless they hale from that particular part of the world of course) is likely to be minimal, it provides a brief but informative introduction -appropriately in storybook form – to the more salient points that led up to the seizure of the American Embassy. The geo-politics of the time bubble throughout the film. The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union is a side story as are east-west tensions and the threat of the USA boycotting the Olympics Games in Moscow. An Iranian woman caught up in the escape plot flees to Iraq – at the time of course an ally of the United States and soon to be in a bloody war with Iran.
As hostage situations tend to encompass a lot of waiting which – with the possible exception of when they are written by Samuel Beckett –never make for great drama, the story moves at a pace. Once the situation that the hostages find themselves in has been established, the film jumps a couple of months and centres on the extrication of 6 American Embassy employees who, having managed to escape from the Visa Section at the American Embassy, are now ensconced with the Canadian ambassador and his wife.
The film is adept at showing the understated bravery of the Canadian ambassador and his wife, of the CIA Operative, Tony Mendez, the character played by Ben Affleck and the Iranian housemaid Sahar whose bravery was perhaps all the more amazing given, that as an Iranian citizen, she would not be afforded the glare of international attention which may have provided the others with some possible protection had they been caught. The film in its understated way pays homage to men like Tony Mendez who have the thankless task of risking their lives for their fellow countrymen and possibly never seeing their own loved ones again.
The understated nature of the film helps increase the tension. It can be seen in the stoicism of the Canadian ambassador and his wife who risk possible execution for ‘harbouring the enemy’. It can be seen in Sahar’s quiet dignity during her interrogation by the Revolutionary Guard despite his veiled threats. After all Sahar has witnessed a random killing on the street by some of his colleagues and can only be too aware of what would befall her if she’s caught out in her lie. It can be seen when Tony takes off his wedding ring at the airport, losing his own identity to become one of the faceless men, who put their own lives on the line to save others in the knowledge that their bravery can never be publically acknowledged.
This understatement can also be seen in the blink-and-you’ll-almost-miss-it clip of the plaque at the CIA’s Virginian headquarters dedicated to the “honor of those members of the CIA who gave their lives in the service of their country”. However, Argo makes no bones about the CIA and US foreign policy and the fact that for the best part of 4 decades the US alongside Britain not only installed but supported a Shah whose tyrannical regime tortured and misgoverned its own people. Applying no doubt the same theory that Kissinger used to justify the US’s then support of Saddam Hussein: “We knew he was a bastard but we thought he was our bastard.”
In fact, the State Department’s ideas on how to extricate the 6 hostages do flag up an alarming lack of knowledge of the country much to the dismay of Ben Affleck’s character. He too is stumped for a possible escape route until he starts watching an episode of Planet of the Apes. His idea? To fly into Iran as a member of a Canadian film crew scouting for locations for a science fiction movie called Argo. He then plans to fly out a couple of days later with the 6 escapees in tow as fellow members of said film crew.
As Tony’s superior says it’s the “best bad idea” they have. The situation in Iran being as it is there are few credible reasons for Westerners to be in Iran in the first place. Whereas Tony Mendez quips with regard to Hollywood: “Everyone knows they’d shoot in Stalingrad with Pol Pot directing if it’d sell tickets”.
Once Tony Mendez’s superiors and Hollywood contacts and are on board with the idea, the latter use a tried and tested Hollywood method to ensure the story sounds more believable. As they note: if you want to sell a lie, get the press to do it for you. They arrange for a reading of the script at the Beverley Hilton (where else?) and make sure the story is suitably covered in the trade press.
It’s interesting that the film they choose to ‘make’ belongs to the genre of science fiction, a genre which invents its own worlds, its own rules and which has been used as a device by many an author to discuss philosophical ideas such as morality, identity, society and religion. In a way both America and Iran are vying with each other with their own fictional worlds claiming a world for themselves which in reality is far from the truth. At one point the film provides a montage of US TV reports intermingled with shots of an Iranian woman denouncing the US to the cameras, both sides of the same coin you might say, providing their own ‘science fiction’. The land of the free toppling democratically-elected rulers and installing tyrants in their place, and Iran denouncing America for acts of terrorism whilst the Revolutionary Guards carry out random killings and arrests, hang people from cranes in the street, form kangaroo courts and where people are shot for simply having American names in their phone book.
That the film was popular among Hollywood insiders is not surprising as the script is splattered with in jokes from the assertion that you can teach anyone to be a director in a day including a rhesus monkey; to the contention that getting on the wrong side of the Ayatollah is small fry compared to upsetting the Writers Guild of America; or that Tony Mendez can only be an associate producer at best. As John Goodman’s character remarks Tony wants to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot without doing anything. He concludes he’ll fit right in
Hollywood is ably represented in the film by two of Hollywood’s most loveable character actors John Goodman and Alan Arkin, the latter of whom is in danger of stealing every film he’s in at the moment. His producer character is such an archetype of your idea of everything a Hollywood producer should be – with brilliant one liners to boot (“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit.”) that you kind of wish he had a movie of his own to feature in.
However, I’m assuming that the depiction of the final escape from the airport has had some considerable dramatic licence added to it. The tension still holds and even ratchets up a notch but the scene where the plane is being chased by police cars and jeeps is rather reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie.
All in all though Argo is well-directed, well-written and well-acted, and not surprisingly won a whole raft of awards. The film tries to deal with a complicated event in recent American history without glorifying America or an organisation which for many (and not without some justification) has become a bogeyman on the world’s political stage. In essence Argo tells a story of great bravery and like Ben Affleck’s character in the film Tony Mendez, it enacts it with great humility and is all the better for it.